An American in Finland: Playing for the Trojan Women of Turku

Lee Kaszas, Gridiron Queendom

As I sit here at home in Indianapolis after having played a summer of football for the Trojan Women, of Turku, Finland, I’m struggling on how to adequately describe the best experience of my entire life. I guess I should start at the beginning… It all started in January with a post on the Facebook group page “Female Tackle Football Players Around the World. Sam Rapoport reposted an opportunity for American football players to become import players in Finland. I read through the details, becoming more excited with every sentence I finished; I knew that I had to do this. I was going into my 9th season of playing football feeling a little tired and wanting more from the game. It was starting to feel a little like a bad relationship that I just couldn’t quit. I saw this as my shot to rejuvenate my love of the game and reach the next level that always seemed to evade me. I sent an email immediately and anxiously awaited a response. A few days later I got a general response asking me to send a biography and highlight video that would go to all participating Finnish teams. I got to work and finished both as fast as I could. After sending out my shameless self-promoting materials, I did some research (ok, stalking) on Facebook to find the team manager for the Trojans team in Turku, Finland. I found Jonna Hakkarainen and sent her a Facebook message letting her know how excited I was about this opportunity and that I had already sent all that was requested. She was very nice and patient with me over time as I frequently checked in on the progress of the selection process. When I found out that the Trojans chose me, I was ecstatic! While I felt bad about not finishing out the season with my home team, the Indy Crash, I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I could not pass up. After clearing the last hurdle, getting the time off of work, the ball was rolling!

I arrived at the Helsinki airport Monday, May 30th, 5 days before our first game. There were three Trojan players, -our QB Jonna, and two wide receivers, Kipa and Jutta- waiting for me. What I didn’t know at the time was that here, gathered at the airport, were three of the best players in all of Finland. The girls were friendly and somewhat quiet, as Finns usually are at first. I chatted nervously the whole way back to Turku, a 1.5 hour drive from Helsinki, as we made our way to practice. After flying for 20 hours I was heading to my first official practice with my new team. I was exhausted but my excitement took over and I insisted on practicing with that very day. The team was quieter than I was used to when we began our drills but my first block on one of the linebackers set the tone and let me know that these women knew what they were doing. Practice was great; I learned the plays for our upcoming game and walked away with a few ‘welcome to the Trojans bruises’. After practice we went out for some wings and I got to know some of my teammates a little better. Soon after eating, I was exhausted and ready for bed. Even though the sun never really went down, I was out cold in no time. The rest of the week was a blur of hard work and fun. We practiced every day leading up to our first game and in between; we went to the beach, explored the city and made meals together. It was a wonderful first week and would be capped off with our first win.

Our first game was against the Northern Lights; it was a seven-hour bus trip up north. Most of the girls spoke Finnish to each other out of habit and it was the first time that I felt a little isolated and like an outsider. While I know it wasn’t intentional, it is a strange feeling to not understand what everyone around you is saying. Bored, I fell asleep and awoke as we arrived in Oulu about 8 hours later. After we hopped off the bus, we checked into our hotel, found some food and I went to bed with visions of our plays dancing in my head.

My first time on the game field with the Trojans would prove to set the tone for the season. I started the game out as a full back, which I had been practicing that week, but after a slow offensive start, I switched to tail back on the second half.I finished that first game with 28 carries, 249 rushing yards and 4 TDs. The feeling after that first win was amazing, all of the initial uneasiness I felt about the language issues and change of pregame routine melted away as I clicked on the field with my new team. The bus ride home was a blast, as were most of our after game trips with my teammates.My first week was incredible and went by too quickly, like the rest of my time in Finland.

Every week we prepared for the next opponent, practicing 3 days a week, watching game film and doing walk-throughs. Before our first home game against the Crocodiles, the nerves were running high for my teammates who were anxious to play in front of their friends and family. I also felt like I had a lot to prove to our home crowd. I wanted to show them that the Trojans made a good investment in signing me but also that it was just as important and beneficial for the women’s team to bring in imports as it has been for the men. Having something to prove seemed to motivate us, we beat the Crocodiles 72-21 and I had the best stats of 2016 with 22 rushes for 378 yards and 5 TDS. Our home crowd cheered us on, and we were all hopeful for a dominating season. It’s hard to explain how we so thoroughly beat a team but it didn’t feel the same as the blowouts played at home. The Crocodiles kept fighting and scored against us, they just struggled to finish tackles. In fact, until we played the Roosters later in the season, I found this to be a trend amongst many of the Finnish players. Offensively, the Trojans would outplay my team at home but teams in Finland fell a bit short in the fundamentals of tackling. This was something that we improved on during the season but that I noted was one of the biggest differences between football there and at home.

Our third game of the season was the first in which I would be facing my teammates from home. Tee Sanders and Courtney Powell, two fellow Crash players, were playing for the Huskies in Hämeenlinna. Seeing them before the game was surreal, it was like a homecoming away from home. We exchanged hugs and some quick updates of our experiences thus far and wished each other good luck. It was a rainy day and the field was grass; I wasn’t sure how the game would go or what it would be like playing against my teammates but as we walked onto that field, it was all business. On the opening kick off return, the ball bounced in my direction and I ran it back for 65 yard TD. The rest of the game continued in much of the same fashion as the ones before. We dominated on the ground and though we struggled more in the passing game than usual because of the rain, we beat the Huskies 66-12; I ran for 342 yards and scored 4 TDS.My teammates from home both played well and had most of the tackles on me for their team. It was a great rivalry and we had a lot of fun representing the Crash from both sides.

Our first loss would come to the Roosters after our break for Midsummer. The Midsummer holiday as described by visitfinland.com is “…a main national holiday in Finland. Originally a celebration of the summer solstice, it is typically spent with friends and family at a summer cottage away from the city, either partying or relaxing.” Approximately 15 teammates and myself spent a long weekend at a family summer cottage. We drank, swam, sat in the sauna, suntanned, grilled, played games, peed in the woods, drank some more, and stayed up late watching the traditional bonfires. It was an amazing weekend of bonding and experiencing a true Finnish tradition. That next week, as ready as we’d ever be, we faced a very strong Rooster’s team. We had the best quarterback, wide receivers and running back in the league but we hadn’t until that point played against such a dominating defensive line or linebacker core. We struggled early to establish a run but did find some success in the passing game later on. In the third quarter I ended up leaving the game because of a potentially broken hand (x-rays after the game thankfully showed that it wasn’t).We fought hard to the end but we just couldn’t stop their strong running game. With a final score of 30-20 for the Roosters, we had officially had our first loss.

Although it was a tough loss, we gathered ourselves and were more determined than ever to get better. Our defense had a ton of work to do and our offense needed some fine-tuning as well. The hard work and adjustments on defense paid off and we won the rest of our regular season games. We played through some key injuries, including my partially torn quad and finished the season 6-1.

Going into playoffs our plan was to continue playing some of our key players on both sides of the ball. In our first playoff game against the Russian Valkyries we had a somewhat modified game plan. In our last regular season game, our quarterback Jonna and other offensive players, played on both sides of the ball. While it was an effective strategy, Jonna hurt her hand and was not able to throw the ball. She handed off the ball for the remainder of the game but needed a back up plan for our first round of playoffs. During that week in between games, I practiced at the QB position.

Going into our playoff game vs. the Valkyries we got a slow start on offense due mostly to our change in personnel and the adjustment of their defense. I was clumsy at QB and our mojo was thrown off. The game was too close going into the second half, thankfully our injured QB, Jonna, toughed it out and came into the game. We mostly ran the ball but found our groove and easily beat the Russians 34-0, securing our spot in the championship game. This was the first time in history that the Trojans women made it to the finals!

We had two weeks to prepare for our rematch against the Roosters who remained undefeated. We were focused but riddled with injuries. Many of our players, including myself, would have to play both ways the whole game. We would be tired but we were preparing for that. We polished our game plan and felt very confident going into that Saturday evening. The setup for the game at the Velodrome in Helsinki was like no women’s game I had participated in before. We had media and interviews going on everywhere. Cameras were poised to capture every angle on the field. We were prepped on how to come out of the tunnel and how long to stop in front of the cameras. Fire exploded when the offensive players were announced onto the field; it was all so surreal. This truly was the biggest moment in my football career. Warm-ups are a blur as is most of the game when I think back on the events. Every emotion was so heightened that I only vaguely recall specific details from the game. The Roosters’ defensive line came hard and dominated the line of scrimmage, making it nearly impossible to break through for any big runs. We established a few first downs here and there, but had a huge loss early in the 1st quarter when we lost our fastest receiver and corner to a shoulder injury. We never developed a passing game and were forced to keep leaning on the running game. I took hit after hit on offense and played all but 4 downs of defense at safety. Defensively we played much better this time against the Roosters but it simply wasn’t enough without our offense production. Everyone gave every ounce of effort that they had but, to put it simply, we loss to the better and stronger team. There were tears of disappointment from many of my teammates and although I was also sad, the enormity of this experience was too incredible for me to feel devastated.

As my final days in Finland approached, I reflected on what an amazing summer and experience it has been. I made great memories, met incredible new friends and learned so much from my coaches. Between practices and games, I was always doing fun things with my teammates. The Finnish definitely know how to let loose and have a good time. Work hard, play hard seems to be their motto and at first I had a hard time keeping up! In our free time we went on an overnight cruise to Sweden, a rock festival at the beach, went cliff diving, zip-lining, fishing, sight-seeing, dancing, spent a crazy three days during mid-summer on a private island summer cottage, drank on floating bars and relaxed in many different saunas. To adjust to the Finnish lifestyle was easy; all I had to do was get over my shyness of being nude in front of others, eat a lot of grilled meats and new potatoes, drink a ton of ciders, pee in nature, stay up until 5am and always be ready for an adventure! If anyone ever has the chance to visit, or better yet, play football in Finland, my advice is to do it; you will have the time of your life!

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